The city's historical and royal heart beats around Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad), presided over by the resplendent, sea-green Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage Art Museum. This small district houses few hotels and restaurants, but it's a crucial starting point for experiencing St. Petersburg. The curved facade of the General Staff headquarters faces the Winter Palace from across the square, its three-layered arch leading to Nevsky Prospekt while shielding the square from the street noise and bustle. The square opens westward toward the Admiralty Building, whose ever-glistening spire acts as a compass point for the city, the nexus of three main avenues. Farther west lies the Decembrists' Square, anchored on one end by the enormous single-domed St. Isaac's Cathedral, and on the other by the fearsome Bronze Horseman statue rearing up over the stone banks of the Neva River.
Nevsky Prospekt is St. Petersburg's geographical anchor, an elegant avenue named after medieval Russian warrior prince Alexander Nevsky. When you're touring the city, it helps to bear in mind where you are in relation to Nevsky at any given time. The hotels on upper Nevsky, near Palace Square, are mostly top-notch and top-price. Lower Nevsky has a few mid-range Soviet-era options and an increasing number of inexpensive bed-and-breakfasts. Restaurants on the avenue range from Russian fast food for a few rubles to members-only nouveau riche hide-outs. More creative dining options can be found on the side streets just off Nevsky.
North of central Nevsky are the Square of the Arts and the Summer Gardens, an area that includes the often underrated Russian Museum, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, several theaters and galleries, and the dizzying domes of the Church on the Spilled Blood. Hotels here are scarce, but bars and cafes dot the neighborhood.
Heading east toward the bend in the Neva River takes you to the Taurida Gardens and Smolny Cathedral and Convent. This quiet neighborhood, generally termed North of Nevsky, is ideal for casual strolling and admiring the city's lesser-known architectural wonders. It has a strong selection of private hotels, with reasonable prices and eager service, though some are rather far from the metro and Nevsky. Continuing south brings you to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and Nevsky Prospekt's eastern end.
South of Nevsky, the neighborhoods become defined by a series of canals, the chief ones being the Moika Canal, Griboyedov Canal, and Fontanka River. The area includes such landmarks as the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Theater, the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Dostoyevsky's House Museum, and several picturesque bridges and embankments perfect for a romantic or introspective evening. Less chic and touristy than the area north of Nevsky, this area is more innovative in dining and entertainment, with several restaurants and bars competing for largely local business. The hotel industry is starting to catch up, with "mini-hotels" popping up along the lanes and quays.
On the north side of the Neva, the Peter and Paul Fortress forms a beacon overlooking the rest of the city. This often overlooked part of town, including Vasilevsky Island and the Petrograd Side, is spiffing up more slowly than the area around Nevsky but has produced several chic and inviting restaurants and a few small, inexpensive hotels. Several ship-restaurants line the shore on this side of the Neva, playing up the city's marine traditions. You must take the metro or a taxi to get here from Nevsky and the main museums and shopping.
It's been called St. Petersburg's Bloomsbury or Peter the Great's precursor to Manhattan, but Vasilevsky Island (Vasilevsky Ostrov) is something all its own. It's just across the Neva River from the Hermitage, but far enough from the bustle of Nevsky Prospekt that many visitors never make it here. A growing cluster of mini-hotels, restaurants, and shops is starting to change the island's rather remote, removed reputation.
Peter the Great considered basing his capital on Vasilevsky Island, but its location made it too vulnerable to storms and flooding. Its western shore is buffeted by winds from the Gulf of Finland year-round, and the spit (called the Strelka) at its eastern tip bears the brunt of the Neva as it splits off into two branches right before reaching the sea. The first bridge built from the island to the "mainland" across the Neva had to be taken down every autumn until the spring thaw because of the rough winters. Despite these challenges, the island quickly became the city's learning center, housing St. Petersburg's first museum, observatory, and university.
St. Petersburg State University still dominates the eastern side of the islands, with several of its buildings dating from the 18th century. In the 19th century, factories grew up on the western reaches of the island, and its mix of students and workers made it a hotbed of revolutionary activity. Today, the west side of the island remains a rather bleak landscape of neglected harbors and warehouses, while the east side boasts vibrant student life and commerce, with a few pedestrian streets and restored churches. Finding addresses on Vasilevsky is highly logical, yet confusing at first. The island is laid out on a numbered orthogonal grid, but the north-south streets have different names for each side of the street, so that the first street is called "1st Line" (1-aya Liniya) on the east side and "2nd Line" (2-aya Liniya) on the west side. Highlights of the island include Menshikov Palace, Kunstkamera and the university complex, and Leytenanta Shmidta Embankment, good for a walk. The nearest metro station is Vasileostrovskaya.
It's covered in cobwebs and is not on most tourists' itineraries, but this island is unlike anything you'll find elsewhere, and provides a fascinating way to immerse yourself in St. Petersburg's history. Peter the Great named it after his sojourn in Holland, where he learned shipbuilding and was inspired to found Russia's navy. Formed by the creation of two canals on the city's western edge, the island became a key naval training and testing ground, and has housed a submarine testing pool, a prison, an arsenal, timber storehouses, and a printing press.
New Holland (Novaya Gollandiya in Russian) was closed to the public for most of its history, until the military abandoned it in 2003 and ceded its real estate to the city. Its banks are long overgrown, and its stately brick warehouses stand largely empty amid a network of artificial pools and canals, giving it a mystical, "lost city" feel. Many of the buildings are protected architectural monuments, but the city has done little to renovate or maintain them amid heated debate about what to do with the island. Some want to make it a tourist complex, with hotels, restaurants, and entertainment spaces; others want to make a cultural center with theaters and galleries; others propose a commercial center, or conference center, or elite residential zone. So far, only a few businesses have moved in, and it has staged exhibits by Russian and foreign artists intrigued by the space and its history. The easiest way to enter now is via Konnogvardeisky Bulvar. Guards may ask where you're headed, so just explain that you're a tourist (tu-reest in Russian). Even if you don't go in, walk or drive around the island and take a moment to look through the strikingly elegant New Holland Arch, designed by French architect Vallin de la Mothe in 1779.
The triangular island is between the Moika Canal, Kryukov Canal, and Admiral Canal. The nearest metro stations are Nevsky Prospekt and Sadovaya Ploshchad.
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